Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 2, 2004)
While it may be a stretch to refer to Sylvester Stallone’s career as being in shambles by 1997, but it sure approached the level of ruin. The glory days of Rocky and Rambo seemed like ancient history by then, and his last moderate hit came from 1993’s Cliffhanger. Between 1993 and 1997, he suffered from one flop after another with notable duds like Daylight and Assassins.
Apparently tired of his status as a running punch line, Stallone signed on for something more substantial than his usual action affair. He hooked onto Cop Land, a serious crime drama with an excellent cast.
Did this revive his career and add substance to his reputation? No, but the movie works fairly well overall, and Stallone acquits himself reasonably nicely.
Cop Land comes set in Garrison, New Jersey, a small town right across the river from New York City. Many NYPD cops reside there, and they dominate the local landscape. We meet Garrison Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Stallone), a single, middle-aged man who wanted to join NYPD but failed to make the cut due to profound hearing loss in one ear; as a teenager, he rescued Liz, whose car had plunged into a river.
Because the town is so dominated by cops, Garrison is a sleepy little burg, and we meet some of the inhabitants. Freddy pals around with Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta), a New York cop on leave due to substance abuse problems. He kind of cracked when his partner got killed, and he struggles to come out of his funk.
When young star cop Murray “Superboy” Babitch (Michael Rapaport) leaves a Manhattan bachelor party and drives home, another car sideswipes him. As he pursues the inhabitants, one of them apparently aims a rifle at him and shoots. Superboy fires some shots, and eventually the two cars collide violently, an event that kills the inhabitants of that car but doesn’t seriously injure Superboy. In the aftermath, it turns out that the rifle was a steering wheel lock, and they fired no shots at Superboy. Fellow cop Jack Duffy (Robert Patrick) plants a gun in the car, but an ambulance driver calls him on this and starts a fight. While this causes a ruckus, leading cop Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) declares that Superboy leapt off the bridge in despair.
This makes no sense to some, and a few people suspect a cover-up; they think Ray - Superboy’s uncle - had the kid hide and faked the jump. Since no one finds a body, this seems more likely, and NYPD’s Internal Affairs investigates. Detective Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) checks into things but encounters resistance.
Back in Garrison, we see the powerlessness of the local cops, as the NYPD speed at will. New deputy Cindy Betts (Janeane Garofalo) mistakenly pulls over Ray and Jackie, and as they pull off, Freddy sees Superboy in the backseat. Moe comes to Garrison basically to rattle some cages, and when he encounters Freddy, he gives the sheriff his card in the hopes he’ll come in and spill some beans. Both sides try to play Freddy to their own advantage.
Quietly, Freddy tries to figure out what’s up with Superboy affairs, and we also see that he maintains a crush on Liz (Annabella Sciorra), the woman he rescued in younger days. She married to cop Joey Randone (Peter Berg), something of an abusive jerk who maintains an affair with Ray’s wife Rose (Cathy Moriarty).
The rest of the film mainly focuses on Freddy’s investigation of the Superboy affair, and matters intensify as the threads unwind. Ray does his best to keep the clan together but the situation deteriorates. We see the various interactions connected to these events.
Basically Peyton Place with cops, Cop Land presents an awfully densely plotted flick. I found it somewhat tough to sum up the story just because it included so many different elements, and I dropped a few subplots to ensure that my synopsis wouldn’t take an hour to read.
More than a little soap opera appears, and this doesn’t add a ton to the story. Actually, that’s not totally true. We get a good sense for the presence of corruption everywhere and the dark underbelly hidden in this seemingly idyllic setting. Nonetheless, I’d prefer to see the movie focus more tightly on the Superboy plot; it would reveal all the appropriate elements and make the movie progress more succinctly and tightly. Cop Land tends to ramble at times and goes off-task more often than I’d like.
Young director James Mangold also is guilty of trying too hard at times. He uses more than a little easy symbolism that seems too blatant. For example, at the start, we see Freddy play a cop-oriented pinball machine that declares “you have no authority” when he loses. Duh! Freddy’s obsession with Springsteen’s The River also seems way too obvious, as rivers play such an important role in his life; Liz’s accident led to his current state in a way, and he also regards the river between New Jersey and New York as a natural obstacle. The movie would work better without such forced symbolism.
Still, the movie enjoys a very interesting concept of the cop in a place full of cops. (Though I think the flick should have been named Cop Town instead of Cop Land, as one might think it’s about Aaron Copland.) It’s a great idea, and one that receives reasonably solid exploration.
Much was made of Stallone’s physical transformation to play Freddy, for the usually buff actor put on substantial blubber. I’m not sure how necessary this was, as it feels like more of a gimmick than a natural character choice. Sure, the fat makes him seem appropriately complacent, but I don’t see what it adds that actual acting couldn’t convey.
As I mentioned earlier, Stallone’s presence here feels something like an attempt to elevate his profile. It didn’t work, as he remained as much of a punch line after Cop Land as before, but I can’t really fault Stallone for that. While he doesn’t offer a killer performance, he does fairly well and seems pretty convincing in the role.
The stellar supporting cast acts both as help and hindrance in regard to Stallone’s success. On one hand, they challenge him and make him work harder to earn his keep. Stallone can’t rely on his star power to carry the day, for the others would easily show him up if he mailed in his performance.
Unfortunately, Cop Land includes so many terrific talents that Stallone can’t help but suffer slightly in comparison. Cop Land enjoys strong performers in virtually every role, and while that forces Stallone to step up his game, it also points out his flaws a little more heavily.
But maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Freddy should seem different than all the rest, and he does. Freddy doesn’t fit with the NYPD and comes across like an outsider, and if Stallone’s different acting style helps with that, so be it. (Stallone does seem too old to be a potential romantic interest for Sciorra, though. We’re supposed to buy them as being about the same age, but Sly’s a whopping 18 years older than Annabella! Sure, he looks younger than his age, but that’s still a stretch.)
When I first saw it theatrically in 1997, Cop Land came across as something of a disappointment, largely because the amazing cast set up such strong expectations. Seven years later, the movie still doesn’t live up to its potential, but it offers a fairly entertaining and executive piece of work. It doesn’t quite meet the Scorsese territory desired, but it keeps us involved and interested.